Ursula K. Le Guin is widely known for things she’s done in the past – The left hand of darkness,
Brief plot summary
Sutty has been assigned as an Observer to a prospective member of the Ekumen. She arrives to discover a world controlled by a massive corporation bent on purging its own past.
So how is it?
It’s really good, and if it wasn’t for Le Guin’s other work it would be absolutely amazing.
Let me explain.
Oa superficial level The telling is very similar to The left hand of darkness and The dispossessed. The general outline of “outsider encounters a completely alien culture, learns about it, ends up on the run and things resolve on a cautiously optimistic note” is exactly the same. As a result, The telling ends up feeling a little bit like a “safe” sequel, a retread of a tried-and-true formula that works but isn’t particularly new or creative. If I hadn’t already read those two novels, I would have enjoyed this one more. It’s certainly not a bad structure, and it works very well with the work’s thematic core. It might be a good idea to avoid reading all three works together though.
Le Guin is a master at using sfnal trappings to examine real-world issues. The telling is no exception, and melds The dispossessed’s [I think I just ran out of “S”s] political themes with The left hand of darkness’s examination of folklore and “modernity”. The great success of The telling is its ability to contain such a vast amound of philosophy without compromising the actual storytelling.
What’s probably the biggest problem with The telling is that it comes across a little too allegorical. The direct parallels between the planet Aka and 20th century China are perhaps more obvious than they should be. It harms the book as the more general philosophical point is somewhat obscured by the obvious similarities with real-world events.
It’s possible that this supposed similarity is less pronounced than I felt. Having seen the historic sites defaced during the Cultural Revolution, having talked quite candidly with survivors of the work camps, having first-hand exposure to people desparately trying to insist that China had moved on from it’s “superstitious” past , experiencing a culture that has explicitly abandoned the trappings of the past while still living the same values that those abandoned trappings advocated . . . it’s hard for me not to think of those experiences when I read this book. Other readers might not think the parallels are as obvious, and I’m sure as time passes and the Cultural Revolution is more removed from people’s everyday lives the larger philosophical point will be less obscured.
At its heart, The telling is a book about culture and our relationship to the past, and how no matter how much we may try to ignore the past it will still have an impact on the present.
Honestly, “cultural misunderstandings” is perhaps my favorite theme in fiction, so I’m somewhat biased here, but I love this book like I love The left hand of darkness or The dispossessed. I don’t own it (yet) but it’s certainly a book that I would want to own and it’s definitely one I’ll come back to.
It’s a good book, but Le Guin is already well known so it’s a little harder to recommend as a result. When looking for book recommendations I’ll often ask about Le Guin, and fans of her older stuff might not have encountered this one or realized that she’s still actively writing.
It’s nowhere close to “hard” science fiction, and as such makes a pretty decent recommendation for non-sf readers, even those not looking to get into the genre. I’m thinking readers of Atwood, or Orwell, or whatever other allegorical (or to borrow from Tolkein, books with “applicability”) author.
So my cross-recommendations
(outside of The left hand of darkness, The dispossessed, and The word for world is forest, all of which are by Le Guin and strong recommendations in both directions)
Ancillary justice / Ann Leckie – this book won just about every major sf award last year. It deserved them.
To live / Yu Hua – (non sf)
Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh